People get that sales tax revenues, in a changing economy, aren’t growing as fast as income tax revenues, and that the state constitution handcuffs lawmakers by requiring all income taxes go toward schools.
It wasn’t that Utahns misunderstood all they have to gain through the tax reform bill lawmakers passed in a special session last month. The flat rate income tax dropped from 4.95% to 4.66%, and despite increases in several other taxes, experts said most people would see a net reduction in what they pay state government.
That says a lot about the people of Utah, and about the tone deafness of many in the state Legislature.
Organizers of the petition drive told the Deseret News they collected at least 152,000 signatures before Tuesday’s deadline. If true, this is remarkable because, while state law gives citizens the right to overturn newly passed statutes, it gives them precious little time to do so. It’s also remarkable because the drive needed only about 116,000 signatures, divided proportionally among 15 of the state’s 29 counties.
It’s important to pause here for a long breath. The petition drive cannot yet be declared a success. The lieutenant governor’s office has to certify each signature as belonging to a registered voter. Then each person who signed has 45 days to remove his or her signature, and organizers are bracing for what might be an organized effort to pressure people to do so.
The extra 36,000 or so signatures might be enough of a cushion, but we won’t know until March, at the latest. In the meantime, the uncertainty ought to change how lawmakers approach tax reform during the annual legislative session that begins Monday.
Why was this about the poor? The tax reform package would increase the state’s portion of the sales tax on food from 1.75% to 4.85%. Many lawmakers have been itching to do this for years, virtually ever since former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. pushed them to lower the tax more than a decade ago. But it was a gross miscalculation of the public’s wishes.
How do we know this was about the poor? The petition drive didn’t really gain steam until major grocery chains — Harmons and Associated Foods — allowed their stores to be used as places to gather signatures. The connection couldn’t be more clear.
Harmons Chairman Bob Harmon understood this, which is why he became emotional at a news conference Tuesday. “We got behind this thing because we felt there could be something better,” he said.
Designing effective tax reform is hard, and the food tax always represented, if you’ll pardon the food pun, low-hanging fruit. In recent years, lawmakers have explained to me how, during a recession, food remains one of the few items the state can count on people buying consistently. It’s a stable revenue source. Always, they promised the poor would receive tax credits, and in this case one-time checks for as much as $200, and that the extra money collected would go toward programs that help the poor.
But those arguments sounded like they came from people who never had to count pennies, or at least had forgotten what it was like. Tax credits at the end of the year don’t help much when you need food now. One-time checks are nice, but they don’t represent long-term solutions. And why do we have to tax the poor in order to help the poor?
To be sure, the poor who qualify for food stamps and other government assistance programs always were beyond the scope of this argument, provided they know how to access those programs. This tax hike was directed more at the struggling families who earn just enough to stay beyond the reach of assistance. Why should they be targeted as insurance against recessions?
Three years ago, I thought we had seen the last of these attempts to raise the food tax after the experts told lawmakers food sales were just 11% of all sales taxes collected, and that the extra tax would raise only about $175 million. But the idea just wouldn’t die.
We won’t know for a while whether the petition drive has successfully knocked it down once more. But lawmakers, who backed considerably away from their original idea of taxing more services and reversing tax exemptions, ought to be getting the message.
Tax reform is needed, but leave groceries alone.